The Power of Almost
Among the many reasons I love golf is that it is the only activity about which people brag in reverse. You will never hear people say they can’t hit a softball or that they blew a key presentation at work or that their steaks are under-seasoned and overcooked. But we take great pride in being terrible at golf and will describe in detail our own ineptitude.
It’s been 30 years, and I can still hear the stifled laughter behind me after I whiffed on the first tee of a shotgun start at a scramble when I was in high school. Oh, I have hit my fair share of good shots, I suppose, but the story of any person’s golfing life is a story of failure punctuated by the occasional good shot that keeps us coming back.
It was with the pursuit of a perfect ball in mind that I sold a story last year for which I promised to spend the summer trying to get my first hole in one. The editor of The Golfers Journal and I set a three-month time limit, and starting on a brutally hot Friday, I played the same par 3 course near my house over and over. I pitched the piece as a chance to learn about perseverance. I thought that by trying for a near impossible task and failing over and over again, I would learn about the value of sticktoitiveness. I would learn to keep going despite frustration. I would learn about grit.
In 32 trips to the golf course and more than 1,500 attempts at a hole in one, I learned about all of that—frankly, maybe more than I cared to know.
But I learned something else just as important—the value of almost.
I tried to forget the bad shots and made a point to closely track the good shots. For the sake of this piece, I’m going to define “almost” scoring an ace—a hole in one—in two ways. The first is a ball that came to rest within two feet of the hole. Out of 1,589 tee shots, I had four of those. (I also hit 799 on the green, 299 within 20 feet, 26 within five.) The second “almost” definition is a shot that, while on its way, looked for even a fraction of a second like it had a chance to go in the hole, even if it ultimately didn’t wind up anywhere near it. I had a couple dozen of those, and that’s not counting the low screamer that skipped across the green and clanged off the pin, because even though it was on target, it never had a chance to go in.
On one beautiful morning, on swing No. 1,270 or so, I launched the most “that’s going in!” shot of the entire endeavor. It soared high and straight and directly at the hole. I thought I might jar the dang thing. Alas, it did not land in the hole, or roll into it for that matter. I kept a tape measure in my golf bag to catalogue my near misses, so the following measurements are precise: The ball came to a rest 15 inches behind the hole. The line in the dew showed it missed the hole by four inches.
AAARGH! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, to pump my fist or throw a fit. If the ancient golf god Titleist had offered that as a result in any other situation, I would have taken it. But my goal was not to almost get a hole in one, it was to actually get a hole in one. So that shot was just as much of a failure as if I had plunked the ball into the drink or whistled it into the woods or shanked it off the cart path.
Not that I’ve ever done any of those things. (Yes I have.) (Hundreds of times.)
I called my wife and described how close I had come. She asked if I was encouraged that I came so close or disappointed that I barely missed. I said yes.
The deeper I traveled into my quest for the perfect shot, the more times I came close, the more those two emotions—encouragement and disappointment—melded together into one propelling force. Getting a hole in one was a lofty, ridiculous, borderline unreachable goal… but I was determined to reach it. I am going to get that hole in one, I told myself, if for no other reason than to justify that encouragement and redeem that disappointment. There was more than a little bit of stubbornness, in there, too, but I like to think it was hopeful stubbornness.
Did I have reason to be hopeful? No. I caromed errant shots off of three different light towers, and none of those towers were “in play,” by any reasonable definition. I lost count of how many balls I hit into the sand traps, how many balls I hit into the water and how many balls I hit out of bounds. Even worse than the anecdotal evidence of my failure was the statistical proof of everybody else’s. The great moral philosopher Han Solo once said, “never tell me the odds.” But I looked them up anyway: The odds of an average duffer getting a hole in one are one in 12,500. Yet every time I came close, I believed a little bit more that I could overcome those odds.
There’s an old saying about how almost only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes. Baloney! Early in my freelance writing career, I viewed pitching stories as a zero-sum game, very much like tee shots in my hole in one quest. Yes was good, no was bad, and there was no in between. I now know that is completely wrong. There are good nos, which I have come to call “almosts.” (There are also bad yesses, but that’s a story for another day.) The power of almost has been a propelling force in my solopreneur career, on the golf course, in my office, and everywhere else.
I started to pay close attention to almosts and what came next because of a story in this very magazine. The first story I pitched to the editors of SUCCESS was a profile of a professional bull rider named J.B. Mauney. I didn’t propose a story on him because he was a bull rider, I proposed a story on him because of lessons we could learn about his toughness.
Before pitching the story to SUCCESS, I “almost” sold it to a couple different outlets. Editors responded favorably to the pitch, but I couldn’t convince anybody to move beyond, “we don’t do stories on bull riders.”
I kept trying to sell that story long after I would have normally given up because all of those nos were positive. From first pitch to sale was more than seven months, an eternity for me. Finally the brilliant editors here agreed to let me write it. If all I got out of the transaction was that one story, it would have been an important lesson in seeing encouraging nos a reason to keep going. But I’ve gotten far more than one story.
I have now sold five stories to this magazine, and because of connections made with SUCCESS editors who know editors elsewhere, I landed assignments that have sent me to Italy, Germany, Austria, Oregon, Colorado, Montana, Alaska, Idaho and Texas. Combined, those stories covered close to half a year’s salary, and those trips quite literally changed my life. If I had not stuck with it after “almost” selling the bull rider story, none of that would have happened.
Now I see that pattern everywhere. Time and again, the power of almost has resulted in me selling more stories, establishing new relationships and making more money.
Also: Catching more fish.
SERGII SOBOLEVSKYI / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
Dark clouds rolled in as I cast into a trout stream at Dogwood Canyon in southwest Missouri. I was supposed to fish all afternoon. The looming rain promised to cut that short, so I was eager to land as many fish as possible before the deluge.
I watched my lure skim along, just under the surface of the water. I watched a fish the size of a small child chase it. I watched the fish almost bite it, and then I watched the fish swim away. Frustrated, I looked to my guide, a kind man named Jim, for an explanation. He didn’t have one, at least not one that I liked. Sometimes fish bite. Sometimes fish don’t bite. “It drives me crazy,” Jim said.
I gave up on catching that particular fish and moved to my right with the hope of finding a fish that was more gullible. Jim changed my bait. I cast some more. I felt a tug, a big one. I yanked back on the rod, set the hook and started reeling. I drew the fish near to shore. Jim appeared by my side with a net. I lifted the tip of my pole high, which pulled the fish out of the water. I spun to my right, and deposited into Jim’s net a rainbow trout so big I don’t have to lie about it being the size of a small child.
I thanked Jim for helping to turn that “almost” caught fish into a caught fish. I pulled in a few more after that, too. The rain started soon enough, and as I rushed to shelter, I was relieved that I had not been shut out. I firmly believe that only a fool thinks the point of fishing is to catch fish. But I also really like to catch fish.
As we drove back to the lodge where we were staying, I thought more about the fish I didn’t catch than the ones I did catch, because without that near miss—without that almost—I probably would not have made the changes necessary to turn the miss into a catch.
The very existence of the hole in one story shows the power of almost and how near misses can be turned into hits.
The vast majority of my work is repeat business, and most of that is for editors who are my friends. My philosophy is this: I’d rather have a decent idea and a friend to pitch it to than a great idea and a stranger to pitch it to.
I thought my hole in one idea was somewhere between decent and great. Ah heck, who am I kidding? I thought it was a great idea because it would yield compelling storytelling no matter what: If I did not get a hole in one, I’d have a story about failure, which is often more interesting than success. Life does not always turn out the way we hope. Sad endings are as memorable, as relatable, as real, as happy ones. I envisioned a story about failing well.
On the other hand, if I got a hole in one, I’d have a story about success with a happy ending and I’d have a hole in one. I envisioned a joyful story about persevering to reach a lofty goal.
I like to think my friends know I could pull off either of those stories. But I doubted I could convince a stranger to trust me with a quirky assignment like that. I pitched it first to my magazine client with the largest circulation, which happens to employ my favorite editor, who also happens to be a good friend. His response: “If I were running my own magazine? Absolutely. I know it’d be thoughtful and funny. For this one? Probably not.”
Next I tried another friend, this one at a golf magazine. He loved the idea but wouldn’t buy it for budget reasons.
Those are the kind of nos a guy can make a living from if he’s persistent.
Buoyed by those near misses, I kept trying to sell the story. Editors at Sporting News, my former employer, liked the idea, too, but they were too far away from being able to buy freelance stories to make pursuing a piece there worthwhile. Sports Illustrated ignored my pitch. A follow-up email a week later garnered zilch as well.
That brought me to four nos. I don’t have a hard and fast rule about how many nos I will endure on one idea before I give up on it, but four is pushing it. Still, those three almosts told me to keep going, so I stepped out of my comfort zone and cold-pitched the editor of The Golfers Journal. He responded that day with “that’s a hell of a pitch,” and a few weeks later, we cut a deal for the piece.
That story became one of 12 features I wrote in 2018 based on ideas that I pitched to editors. (I wrote others for which editors came to me.) Of those 12, six were initially turned down by other publications. But in each case, the “no” responses were encouraging. Those magazines, like that fish that ignored my lure, almost, but didn’t, bite. So I moved on and caught something else.
But it doesn’t always work that way. My unsold story idea list is a dog’s breakfast of blown-off pitches and half-baked ideas and even some almosts that never sold. Some I probably waited too long before moving on, some I probably gave up too soon. I learned about when to move on and when to keep trying when I went fishing again, this time on Table Rock Lake with Terry “Big Show” Scroggins, an outsized personality from the Bassmaster pro fishing tour.
JJMAREE / ISTOCK.COM
Early morning mist wafted off the water as we climbed into Scroggins’s boat. We zipped atop the lake. Wind sliced into my face and blew my hat clean off my head; it was almost lost forever, saved only by the string around my neck. Spray sprinkled on my skin. We stopped and I smiled from ear to ear. I asked if that ever gets old, and Scroggins surprised me by saying yes. Then I noticed his skin was as worn as boot leather. One early morning ride on a boat is fun. A thousand of them are work.
We put our lines in the water and talked about fishing, by which I mean we talked about life—desires met and missed, hopes fulfilled and dashed, dreams that landed and dreams that got away. I’d love to recount that for you, but my recording from talking with Scroggins sounds like gibberish, because fishing has its own language, most of which is onomatopoeia for fish hitting bait: Bonk, tonk, wonk, sonk, twink, blink, wahooguh and so on.
I’m no linguist, but my guess is that there are so many words for a fish hitting bait because it is the single most important event in fishing. It represents an almost caught fish turning into a caught fish. But there was very little bonking, tonking, wonking, etc. going on that day, and I wanted to know why.
It wasn’t for a lack of fish. I looked at the radar on Scroggins boat, and it reminded me of my dining room wall the time my then-infant daughter spit up sweet potato onto it. There were bright blobs everywhere. They represented fish directly below us. I thought of those fish as a whole bunch of almosts. All we had to do to turn them from almosts into caught fish was persuade them to bite. I figured if anyone could do that, it was Scroggins.
He goes beyond creative and into mad scientist as he cooks up crazy lures. He described using a bullet to punch holes in one, epoxy to add weight to another and a hypodermic needle to shoot who knows what into a third.
With that much prep work, it was just a matter of time, I thought, before the fish that were below the boat joined us in it. I started to ask Scroggins how long he waits before he gives up and goes to the next spot, and we were speeding away before I finished the question. “If you ain’t catching them, and catching them good, you better keep on going until you figure them out,” Scroggins says. “You can’t be patient.”
The power of almost? PFFT! He fishes for money. No fish, no money, so he doesn’t wait long. It’s hard to argue with his results: He has made $1.8 million, won five tournaments and is a world-renowned fisherman in large part because he knows when to fish and when to cut bait. Soon I realized I do the same thing when I’m “fishing” for assignments.
The next spot was no better, nor was the one after that, or the one after that. After an hour, I had not even had a nibble, even though the radar showed we were again sitting over a ton of fish. I was frustrated, and I think Scroggins sensed that because he stopped his own fishing and watched me reel in my line.
“Slow down, just a little,” he told me.
Two seconds later—bonk! tonk! wonk! sonk!—I had my first bite of the day, but that fish slipped away. User error, probably, but I didn’t care, because I finally had an almost, and I knew that, with Scroggins helping me, an almost would turn into a caught fish. On the next cast, I again applied what Scroggins taught me, and twink! blink! wahooguh! Soon I was smiling alongside Scroggins holding a bass so big I won’t bother bragging about it because there’s a picture of its hugeness right here on this page.
In less than a minute with Scroggins, I went from nothing to almost catching a fish to pulling in the biggest fish of my life. All it took was a little tweak to unleash the power of almost. That lined up pretty much exactly with my experience selling stories. Could the power of almost yield results on the golf course, too?
A few days after the ball rolled four inches to the left of the hole and stopped 15 inches behind it, I returned to the golf course for the 32nd time. I settled into my routine—10 or so tee shots per hole, then move on to the next one. After an hour, I had hit the green 22 times, including seven within 15 feet of the hole, but none particularly close. I stood on the tee box of hole No. 11, which the scorecard lists at 117 yards, in full automaton mode: Hit ball, put new ball on tee, hit ball, put new ball on tee. I wasn’t expecting much when I lined up the 35th shot of the day, and I didn’t get much. I duffed my 9 iron. It did not travel 50 yards in the air.
It was pathetic.
On the next swing, the 1,589th overall, I hit the 9 iron again. This time the ball jumped off of my club, high and soft and straight at the hole.
It bounced … rolled across the green … and dropped straight into the hole.
It happened so fast I didn’t even have time to get excited that it might go in.
In an instant of those almosts bore fruit. The encouragement they lifted up in me was justified and the disappointment they saddled me with was redeemed. I threw my club in the air and yelled like a crazy person. I left my club on the ground, climbed into the cart, drove to the green, ran to the hole and looked down to make sure the ball was in there. It was.
I almost couldn’t believe it.
Related: 5 Lessons Death-Defying Adventure Taught Me About Facing My Fears as a Solopreneur
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
PHOTO BY KIREEWONG FOTO / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
Wow. btw I also Love Golf.